Tennis Hierarchy Under Threat: Balke Bros Respond to Greg Bishop

28 Jan

Greg Bishop came out this morning with an insightful piece on the implications of Stanislas Wawrinka’s Australian Open triumph for men’s tennis going forward. While congratulating Stani on an improbable conquest, Bishop argues that his victory does little to shake-up the stranglehold that the “Big Four” – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray – have had on men’s tennis for the last decade. In other words, the hierarchy is still in place. Bishop presents an interesting viewpoint, but his core argument is wide of the mark, for at least three reasons.

The first is that the idea of the Big Four, which underpins Bishop’s analysis, is a myth or, at a minimum, a squishy idea. Andy Murray, who Bishop lumps into men’s tennis’ controlling hierarchy, has only won two major titles. Juan Martín Del Potro, of Argentina, and Wawrinka have won one apiece. If they win another, will Bishop then consider them part of the now-“Big Five” or “Big Six”? Or, is there another criterion at play, like major finals reached, weeks spent in the top four, or career record against the top-ten? Also, though it pains me to say it as one of his loyal disciples, can we really consider Fed part of the men’s tennis intelligentsia, now that his ranking has dipped to eight? At a minimum, Bishop should lay out a metric for what constitutes entry into tennis’ most elite group. What’s the price of admission, Greg? Your gut feeling isn’t quite enough.

The second hole in Bishop’s argument is the lack of attention he pays to non-Big Four players who have a realistic chance of winning majors. I don’t want to get into crystal balling, but I think it’s safe to say we’ll see a wider range of major champions going forward than we have over the past decade. Bishop gives minor dap to this line of thinking by regurgitating some things former pro and Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimblestob said after Sunday’s final, about how conditions might now be ripe for tennis’ second-tier to break through at the slams, but he immediately explains this away by saying there existed similar hopes following Del Potro’s win at the U.S. Open in 2009, and that it took more than four years for another non-Big Four player – Stani on Sunday – to get the job done.

But there are a number of non-Big Four players who could soon hoist another major trophy. Let’s start with Wawrinka himself. Now that his confidence is unlocked, there’s no reason the Swiss can’t win another title. It’s important to note that clay is Stani’s best surface: If he can get it done on the hard court Down Under, what would preclude him from getting it done on the dirt in Roland Garros? A lefty named Nadal, you say? Well, we saw how well that worked out in Sunday’s final. Sure, Rafa is king of clay, but Stani solved the Spanish Riddle in Melbourne, and I think it is at least not prohibitively unreasonable to conclude that he could do so again on his favorite surface in Paris. Delpo has also shown he can win a major and beat the world’s best players, and Grigor “Baby Fed” Dimitrov, the 22-year-old Bulgarian prodigy, has the talent to break into the game’s upper echelon. At this year’s Aussie Open, Dimitrov finally showed he has the poise to threaten the top guns on tennis’ biggest stages, bowing out to Nadal in the quarters in four tight sets. This is to say nothing of Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who reached the Aussie finals in 2008 and has the game to beat anyone on any given day. If he gets his mental game together – a big “if” – there’s nothing to stop Tsonga coming up roses at a major.

The third hole in Bishop’s argument is a tactical oversight. Those who follow professional sports like the NBA, NFL, or MLB know that, once a team’s weakness is exposed, other teams will quickly seize on it. It’s like picking up on a point guard who can’t go left, a quarterback who always pump fakes before throwing deep, or a pitcher who tips his curveball by rubbing his hat. Tennis is no different. Stani exposed the recipe for beating Rafa in Melbourne: Bludgeon from the baseline, come to net strategically and make your freaking volleys, and exploit Rafa’s inability to hit effective kick serves in the deuce court by running around your backhand return. Of course, knowing the recipe is one thing, executing it quite another. Few players possess Stanislas’ physical gifts, or the unique mix of talent that so troubled the Spaniard Down Under. But the word is out on how to give Rafa fits, and you can bet your bottom euro that other players will try to replicate Stani’s success. Tennis is by no means immune from pro sports’ penchant for breeding copycats.

As followers of this blog know, the Balke Bros have predicted the decentralization of men’s tennis for some time now. Those who understand the structural realities of the game can see it coming. But this is precisely the type of nuanced analysis that is sorely lacking from mainstream tennis coverage today. When you want the deep insight that others won’t, or can’t, explore, come to the Balke Bros. We’ve got you covered.

For fear of seeming too down on Bishop, a talented tennis writer who we greatly admire, let us on conclude by tipping our cap to his finally giving homage to Samuel Beckett, whose famous quote about trying and failing resides, in tattoo form, on Wawrinka’s left arm. The little Balke Bro mentioned the Beckett-Stani connection in a post last week, but, until now, we hadn’t seen any other writer do it. As Irishmen, we appreciate those who give props to our forefathers. So, Mr. Bishop, may the road rise to meet you, and the wind be always at your back.

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