One enemy is the court surface. As celebrated a player as Sampras was, his game could be predictable and boring. Big serve, winner. Big serve, volley, winner. Next point. Tennis executives began to look for ways to make the game more thrilling and marketable for mainstream audiences. To do this, they began to slow down the speed of the courts (and also to make it more fair for returners, who struggled to fend off fast serves). At Wimbledon, for instance, the type of grass was changed to create more bounce and less skid. The hard courts at the U.S. Open and other tournaments are another source of controversy. Court manufacturers now have more sophisticated ways of shaping the size and amount of the sand particles that are mixed into the paint that’s used on the courts. The result is a sandpaperlike feel, so the ball stays in play longer, leading to more dramatic rallies.
Racquets are also changing. The design of the frames and the materials manufacturers are using in them—“magic dust,” insiders call it—are so advanced that it’s easier for players to hit powerful first and second serves. Most important, players use a new kind of polyester string that makes it easier to return heavy serves and allows them to generate more spin. One manufacturer of the string, Luxilon, is based in Belgium and also specializes in bra straps and medical sutures. Once they were introduced on tour, Luxilon strings radically altered the way tennis was played.
Before polyester strings, players strung their racquets with natural gut, which is processed from the sterilized intestines of cows. Gut strings are lively to play with, meaning there’s a speedy bounce after you strike or return a ball. Polyester strings create the opposite reaction: The feeling has been described as “dead,” though the secret to the strings is that they are actually slippery, so when a ball hits them, they slide with the impact and then snap back into place, giving the ball an extra kick. When a ball looks like it’s going long yet drops in, it’s what players call “a Luxilon shot.” These strings have taken away the advantage of big servers (Sampras reportedly called them “Cheatalon”) and rewarded the new breed of baseline warriors like Nadal. Not only is Nadal a prolific talent, but he’s been able to use these technological advances in the game to his advantage. For instance, he uses a polyester string that is shaped like an octagon. The ridges of the string are designed to bite into the ball to impart even more spin. His forehand generates an average of 3,200 revolutions per minute, the highest of any top player. Federer’s forehand hits an average of 2,700 revolutions per minute.
Federer is a Luddite in the new-technology department. He stubbornly plays with a racquet that has a head size of 90 inches, the smallest on tour. He still strings his racquet partly with natural gut.
He refuses to bend to the demands of the modern game, which have pushed the players farther apart from one another and expanded the dimensions of the court. Instead, Federer has tried to find ways to win (or lose) on his own terms. “He never backs up,” Tsonga told me.
Federer views all these changes as part of tennis’s evolution. “You definitely see changes in a game every five years or so,” he told me. “It might be strings, might be racquet technology, might be balls they’re using, might be Wimbledon—all of a sudden the grass is a bit different, or they open the ball cans a bit earlier.” These small details have led to big changes on the court. “Back in the day, the philosophy was when I came up and played Sampras and all these guys, I was like, Okay, well, I’d rather hit a volley myself than having to pass Pete, right? So you’d come in yourself, too. So then you had this dynamic of court position, whoever got to the net first was in a bit of a better position. Today, you’d say, ‘I’d almost rather hit a pass than hit a volley.’ ” Now he has to cover more ground. “You go further away from each other and the court becomes bigger, the balls become heavier, they fluff up more because we can hit the ball harder.”
Federer prefers the older game. “What I liked about it is you had to half-volley back at the back leg and you just try to flick it, or you lob,” he said. “There’s much more sort of excitement around it for me back then than to hit a winner now.”
The modern game has its advantages, he conceded, even though they don’t favor him. “I don’t mind it,” he said. “I think it’s incredibly athletic. We’ve never seen the game be so athletic. If you look at the flair of what the top guys have, it’s something special. It’s always going to be fun to watch.”