2017: A Revival of Aggression in Men’s Tennis?

In recent years the larger events in Men’s tennis have been swept up by players who, for the most part, are counterpunchers of either the aggressive or defensive variety. From 2013-16 the Majors were divvied up between Djokovic (7), Murray (1), Nadal (3), Wawrinka (3), and Cilic (1).

The former three are able to utilise aggression well to varying effect, but are all of them at their core counterpunchers, and will revert back to defence when facing an opponent who is putting them under pressure. The latter two are primarily aggressive baseliners, looking to dictate and go for higher risk shots.

It’s notable that the defensive triumvarite of Nadal, Djokovic and Murray all finished as the number one player in the world, Rafa in 2013, Novak in 2014-15, and Andy in 2016. Cilic and Wawrinka were impressive in their Major Title runs, but could not bring their top form week in week out on the tour. Below the Majors are the Year End Championships, and the lucrative Masters 1000 Titles, nine of which take place throughout the season between March and November. Between 2013-16, most of these were taken by Murray, Djokovic and Nadal, and the consistency that is required to win at these events and remain atop the rankings seemed destined to be possessed only by those who were the fastest, and could rally the longest. Wawrinka, Federer, Tsonga and Cilic took some of the Masters Trophies in this period, but these more aggressive players seemed destined to remain on the second tier.

I prefer watching aggressive tennis, though I am by no means a purist. I like watching  Djokovic, and admire though have never taken to Murray and Nadal’s games, whilst the shot selection and feel of Gilles Simon, the consummate defensive baseliner, I never tire of seeing. Nonetheless, the prospect of the game rewarding defence more and more made my favourite sport to watch less appetising.

Cue 2017! Federer, rested from injuries and playing with more aggression than ever, beat all comers in claiming the first three big titles of the year, The Australian Open, Indian Wells and Miami, all played on medium to medium-slow hard courts, and beating his tormenter Rafa in each. Nadal, also seemingly on the slide until this year, dominated two of the three clay court masters events, and winning an astonishing tenth Clay Court Major in Paris, playing with his signature defence, but looking to dominate with aggression as much as possible. Federer won a second Major of the year at Wimbledon, trampling over all comers on the medium speed grass courts. The remaining Masters Titles played thus far were won by the Aggressive baseliner Alexander Zverev, who looks with his imposing frame and court coverage set to dominate the game in a few years time, winning on the clay of Rome, and the medium paced courts of Montreal, and the much touted but underachieving Grigor Dimitrov, the so-called ‘Baby Fed’ utilising his all court aggression, albeit not recklessly, winning last weekend in the final on the fast courts in Cincinnati.

This year has definitely seen a renaissance of aggressive tennis paying dividends on the men’s tour. With Djokovic side-lined for the rest of the year, and Murray also carrying question marks over his fitness, the tour seems primed to see more of the same. The US Open just round the corner is definitely the fastest of the four majors, and following that we have the mostly fast court Asian Swing, and the European indoor events, all tailored for the more aggressively minded players.

There’s no right or wrong way to play tennis, and watching a defender pick apart aggressors is in its own way entertaining, and requires great skill and strategy. I hope though for the sake of fans that we see more of a variety of styles at the top of the game, producing a contrast and a spectacle that endless rallying rarely produces.

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