Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


September 30, 2011

Covering the Real Golden Age of Tennis

Tennis writer Tom Perrotta tells Gelf why we are lucky to live in the age of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.

David Goldenberg

When it comes to the current state of tennis, Tom Perrotta has the opposite of nostalgia. Perhaps we should call him a yes-stalgist. He's the guy who shakes his oversized graphite racket at old folks and tells them to get on his lawn—and play a set or two. Perrotta has had enough of the reminiscing about the supposed golden era of tennis, what with its wooden rackets, all-American heroes, and serves-and-volleys. According to Perrotta, the sport of tennis—at least men's tennis—is better now than it has ever been.

Tom Perrotta
"If someone [approaches the net like John McEnroe used to do] today, he either gets passed or takes a tennis ball in the teeth."

Tom Perrotta

Perrotta would know. He covers the ATP and WTA tours for Tennis magazine and the Wall Street Journal, covering everything from Mats Wilander's outlandish second act to tennis's rise of the Serbians. And having immersed himself completely in the game, Perrotta thinks that today's players exhibit style and athletic ability far beyond that of their fondly-remembered forebears.

In the following interview, edited for clarity, Perrotta tells Gelf why we get misty-eyed about John McEnroe, why men's tennis is currently more entertaining than women's, why a tennis player union is unlikely, and why grunting doesn't make too much sense.

Gelf Magazine: What's it like sharing a name with another writer?

Tom Perrotta: Wait, there's another Tom Perrotta? Seriously? How heartbreaking…
I suppose it wouldn't be strange at all if our last name wasn't so, well, weird. Your question inspired me to investigate: There are about 2,500 Perrottas in the US, according to That's 0.001% of the population. Two of us are writers, and one of us is a wildly successful writer. And he's the one with hair. He's also a very nice guy (we've emailed). His former students love him (they've asked me to dinner), so do his readers (they've emailed me and sought me out at the U.S. Open), so do my wife's colleagues (they've asked what he's like), and so do his former lovers (OK, I'm making that one up, but I'm surprised I haven't gotten a call from at least one).
I'm just very glad he keeps turning out great stuff. He's the big fish in the tiny Perrotta pond and if he gets drunk and writes something terrible, he might destroy two careers.

Gelf Magazine: The Wall Street Journal barely covers tennis outside of the majors. Do you push for more? Is there any pushback for less, given how low the sport's profile is in the US now?

Tom Perrotta: I look at this way: Compare how much tennis there was in the paper five years ago to now. It's an astronomical increase, and that includes months when there are no Grand Slams. The Friday Journal put Novak Djokovic on its cover in April and ran the piece at 2,000 words; there has been at least a short tennis piece of some kind in the paper every month this year. That's a big commitment from a daily that devotes one page to sports. There's also a lot more that we run online that doesn't appear in print. Of course, I always want to do more, but I've encountered nothing but enthusiasm from them—and I think readers have responded with similar enthusiasm, even though American tennis is at a low point. That doesn't seem to matter to tennis readers. They like the game.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think WSJ readers are more likely to be tennis fans than readers of other daily papers? Why?

Tom Perrotta: Yes, and I think the obvious reasons are correct in this case: Tennis can be a very cheap sport (rackets don't cost much considering how long they last, neither do balls, and courts are very often public), but a lot of people who play tennis play the more expensive version at clubs and love taking lessons, etc. The WSJ's readers are more likely able to afford that than are readers of most other papers.

Gelf Magazine: Say you aren't covering a major, just watching as a fan. Would you watch more ATP or more WTA today?

Tom Perrotta: I'd watch more ATP. The men's game is in a better place today. For one, there are better rivalries. There's also this sense that the best in the game are taking the sport to new and previously unthinkable places. The women's game is in a lull; there's no one out there reinventing the sport. It'll come around, but until it does, I'd watch less of it if I were just a fan.

Gelf Magazine: How has writing about tennis changed the way you play the sport?

Tom Perrotta: I enjoy it much more than I did when I was a kid and used to care way too much. I wasn't a good player by any means and I'm a much worse player now. But I played a lot and stressed about it even more. Now it's easier to just love it, to try new things, meet people, and be happy about running around for a while. When you see great tennis all the time, you relax about your own awful game. Or maybe that's just from getting older.

Gelf Magazine: Does tennis get too wrapped up in the nostalgia, glorifying the Borg/McEnroe/Connors era even as men's tennis arguably is peaking today?

Tom Perrotta: Yes! Yes! In case I'm not being clear, YES. It was a great era, I'm not knocking it. But the nostalgia drives me nuts sometimes. Tennis fans—and I say this as a fan who has had this problem—waste more time thinking that the world used to be a better place than any other sports fans I know. My guess is it has something to do with the fact that most fans also play, and play much more than, say, a baseball fan plays baseball (I love baseball and haven't played in forever). The era you're talking about was huge: Great characters and graceful styles, and everyone who watched was taking up the sport. So there's no way to convince those fans that those days weren't the best, but really it's just like arguing that life is better in your 20s than it is in your 60s. Of course it is! Food tastes better, you can drink more with fewer consequences, the sex is better—everything about life is better in your 20s.
But I'd just ask people to go back and watch some of the footage. There are fantastic moments and great matches, for sure. But there are also countless scenes of John McEnroe approaching the net on a flimsy chip shot down the middle that lands four feet inside the baseline. If someone does that today, he either gets passed or takes a tennis ball in the teeth. The nostalgia I'd most like to kill: Serve and volley. People forget that many fans hated serve-and-volley tennis, and rightfully so—it can be incredibly boring. John McPhee's Levels of the Game (my favorite tennis book) points this out. As you can see, you've got me riled up. I'll just say this: It's OK to be a tennis fan and live in the present. It's a pretty good place.

Gelf Magazine: What will tennis rackets look like in 10 years? How will that affect play?

Tom Perrotta: They'll look much like they do now, and I think that will be the case for 25 or 30 years, maybe longer. We're at the end of the racket revolution—most of the changes you see now are made around the edges (string patterns; spacing of the holes for strings; new materials that, in the end, don't seem to have many advantages over old ones). There have been more changes to strings in recent years (15 years, I'd guess) than rackets, but that's slowing down, too. There's only so much you can do with a racket, though I'm sure there's some engineer out there reading this and thinking, “You wait—you haven't seen anything yet."
And how will new rackets affect the game? Not much. For sure, they have since the days of wood, but here's something that's not talked about nearly enough: How players affect the game. They're all bigger, stronger, and faster than in years past, and train more seriously. They're the chief reason tennis is played like it's played now, not rackets. This is easy to prove: Pick up a modern racket and go play. See? Despite all that technology, you're still terrible.

Gelf Magazine: If there were some sort of Old School Open where all the current players had to use wooden Maxply rackets, would certain players play better or worse?

Tom Perrotta: Everyone would play worse and the big servers like Andy Roddick, John Isner, and Ivo Karlovic would do much better. This is another bit of nostalgia I've tried to kill and have yet to succeed. Going back to wooden rackets would be a disaster for tennis. Stable, more forgiving modern rackets help players on groundstrokes and especially on returns of serve. But it's not difficult to hit a good serve—even a 140-mph serve—with a wooden racket. The ball is still when you serve—it's under your control, and you don't have to react to anything. If the game went back to wood, we'd see huge serves and far fewer returns, i.e., boring tennis.
I went to an exhibition before the U.S. Open where Pete Sampras played Ivan Lendl. Sampras used a wooden racket—the same kind Borg used—and Lendl used his current racket. It was a close match (Lendl isn't so good these days) but thoroughly boring. Pete served great, and that's it. He won 7-5 (if I remember correctly; it was hard to pay attention to the match). I talked to him about playing with wood. He said he couldn't do anything with the ball off the ground. But his serve felt good and looked great (to me).

Gelf Magazine: Could and should professional tennis players unionize? What would it mean for the game?

Tom Perrotta: Yes they could, maybe they should, but I'll believe it when I see it—and the truth is, they don't need to do it. A lot of the top players complained at the U.S. Open this year (as they seem to do every year) and they have legitimate gripes. The season never ends, the game is more physically taxing than it used to be, etc. But I think the threat of a union—or even a strike, as Andy Murray suggested—is going to be enough to make a few small changes that will make the top players happier, if not happy. The problem the players have is their interests often don't align. Top players want to play fewer tournaments, but the tournaments have trouble putting on successful events without top players. And top players still want to play exhibitions despite the long season (those pay big bucks). And everyone else? They want as many tournaments as possible. Talk to Michael Russell. That guy will play anywhere, anytime. He needs to make as much money as he can before he retires.
One thing that is in everyone's interest: Prize money at Grand Slams. The players receive less as a percentage of revenue than other athletes do in league sports. But how should they divvy up that additional money between earlier rounds (better for lower-ranked players) and later rounds (better for the best players)?

Gelf Magazine: Comment on whether you think any of these are detracting from the sport's appeal in the US, how you'd address them if they do matter, and whether they detract from your personal enjoyment in the sport: Lack of top US talent; grunting; time delay between serves.

Tom Perrotta: Lack of top US talent does detract from the sport's appeal in the US, but not as much as I thought it would. When you have Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, nationalities don't matter as much. I'd worry more about how to replace them with anyone, not the country of origin. The woes of the US don't concern me personally and the US will have another great tennis player. It just will, even if it takes some time. It's a big country with too many good athletes.
Grunting: Too much is made of it. It's mildly annoying, but I don't care about it that much. And the players don't care. The comical thing to me is, do players actually believe it has to be that loud for it to work? Shouldn't it be enough to just exhale? Where's the evidence that more volume equals more power or better strokes? Once that's debunked, maybe we'll see juniors doing it less and this tiresome debate dies.
Time delay between serves: That's a bigger problem for me. Tennis is getting slower and slower. Part of it is players need more time to recover between increasingly grueling points. But part of it is just tactical. If Federer doesn't need to bounce the ball 25 times before he serves, then no one needs to do it. Some people want to solve this with a shot clock. That seems a bit gimmicky to me.

Gelf Magazine: If shot clocks are gimmicky, how would you solve the tactical time wasting?

Tom Perrotta: If chair umpires consistently enforced time violation warnings for six months, the speed of play would pick up. And players would complain—which would be entertaining.

Front-page image of Novak Djokovic courtesy of Carine06's Flickr via Creative Commons.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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