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Culture first

Matt Zemek



Geoff Burke -- USA TODAY Sports

Gilles Simon and Daniil Medvedev played a three-set match on grass on Saturday. The final score: 6-7, 6-4, 6-3 for Simon. 32 games. Time of match: 157 minutes.

Earlier in the week in Halle, Roger Federer and Roberto Bautista Agut played three competitive sets with several lengthy, complicated games in just under two hours. Federer defeated Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a long match as measured by games — 35 of them — in roughly 135 minutes.

It is true that a professional tennis player’s job on the given day of play is to win however he or she reasonably can. Gilles Simon — given his lack of a difference-making serve — has played a lot of professional tennis in his time. He has made a solid career out of winning without massive weapons, winning by outlasting the guy on the other side of the net.

If you were Gilles Simon, and you had his package of tennis attributes, you would probably try to win the way he does on a general basis. Simon has certainly thrown in his share of clunkers over the years, losing a number of matches against markedly inferior players, but are those results the primary product of a bad game plan, or bad execution? It’s an interesting and worthwhile debate… but I would side more with the latter answer.

A separate discussion, however, relates to the way new careers are developed and imagined TODAY.

If you were to teach and cultivate a player in 2019, would you WANT that player to be Gilles Simon (plus a serve)? Would you view that kind of player to be the embodiment of a sustainably successful player?

I can be intellectually consistent in praising Simon for making decent (if imperfect) use of his particular collection of tennis attributes — as shown in his physically taxing week of tennis at Queen’s Club and his Saturday semifinal win over Daniil Medvedev — and yet say that the tennis players of tomorrow should have zero interest in wanting to follow Simon as a model for what they should want to become.

It has been a noticeable theme and tension point on #TennisTwitter all week: Some people marvel at the 40-plus-shot rallies we have seen in Halle (with Alexander Zverev, a not-accidental participant in a marathon-length point on grass) and especially Queens, while plenty of others have groaned and expressed their displeasure at the same thing.

It is not an easy balance to strike.

On one hand, any 40-shot-rally demands a considerable amount of athleticism, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity. I am not a very athletic person. I have to respect the effort and stamina which go into long points. I am not going to (fully) rain on the parade of people who like long rallies. I totally get why they like them and don’t want to tell them they are somehow “wrong” or “misguided.”


In what is — and has become — a physically punishing sport, with racquet and string technology making it easier for players to adhere to a baseline-centric game with very little net play, the sport’s coaches and teachers need to take a step back. With grass being slower and more receptive to bounces, unlike the 1980s and previous (chewed-up) decades which demanded net-rushing acumen, anyone who teaches tennis has to stop and ask the question:

“Even though the players I am developing COULD play a baseline-focused game, is it in their best interests to do so?”

The follow-up question is this: “Do I WANT the players I am developing to think their best or most reasonable pathway toward tennis success at the highest level is to be able to endure four-hour matches at majors or 2:45 grass matches at 500s/Premiers, or 3-hour matches on hardcourts at Masters/Premier Mandtories?”

Again, I don’t blame Gilles Simon for playing the way he plays. He is 34. Like Walter White/Heisenberg in “Breaking Bad,” and other dark central figures in classic TV shows of the 21st century — Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Vic Mackey, to name a few — Gillou has gone so far down life’s road as a tennis player (his professional/public identity) that to revise his modus operandi is, if not impossible, certainly unrealistic in a short period of time. It would take several years to extricate himself from a given path or mindset.

There is no quick escape, no easy fix. For Gillou and others who are in their 30s, overhauling a game isn’t a reasonable expectation. Tweaks at most, but not fundamental structural change.

Where tennis — and tennis players, and the coaches who instruct said players — must change is at the developmental stage. “Get them early” is the mantra of educators across the globe. Teaching differently matters.

It’s not only about teaching net play, or teaching every other shot, as Ash Barty is showing the world right now, but teaching a MINDSET and creating a CULTURE which says, “I won’t passively accept endless rallies as a central gateway toward winning.”

If a player HAS to win a long rally here or there, fine — that will be necessary on select occasions. However, building a sustainable career generally will require the ability to play and win short points, saving strain on the body and also featuring the ability to break down an opponent with an attack (especially on short balls or floaters), not just with antler-knocking, testosterone-fueled defense and baseline slugging.

Can you win an occasional tournament by playing the way Gilles Simon or Daniil Medvedev play? Certainly.

Is it likely that a career will max out — and make full use of a player’s athletic skills — playing that way? Probably not.

The brilliance of Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal as exemplars of baseline attrition tennis should not suggest this style is recommended for everyone. Djokovic possesses uncommon elasticity for an athlete. Nadal’s powers of belief and determination in overcoming injuries are very rare. Those are not easy models to follow.

It is also true that Roger Federer’s deft touch isn’t easy to replicate, either, but at least in Federer’s case, one can see a willingness to play shorter points and use a style which is lighter on the body. You can legitimately say Federer has been lucky to avoid many severe injuries in his career. (The 2016 injury was not related to tennis activity, remember.) Nevertheless, Federer HAS improved his odds of playing longer and “betterer” by employing the style he has used.

THAT is a model for young players — not the outrageous talent, but the MINDSET attached to playing points, sets, matches, tournaments, and whole seasons, stitching together a full career.

So, we end with this basic point: Simon is far down life’s road. Medvedev, the man he defeated, is only 23 years old.

Medvedev can (much more realistically) choose to play a different way. He still has time. He has not become Heisenberg or Tony Soprano.

You can rightly note that grass is slow and receptive to bounces today in ways it wasn’t in 1984. Entirely true. Yet, to say that slow grass is the main reason for a match such as Simon-Medvedev on Saturday is not quite on the mark. Slow grass contributes to such matches, to be sure. Those kinds of matches simply couldn’t have been played on 1980s Wimbledon grass. To that extent, the point is true.

However: The much bigger and more central point is that long grass matches are mostly the product of a culture in tennis which accepts and is comfortable with the safe baseline game, as opposed to cultivating a net game.

Remember what teachers of tennis say about coming to the net: You will get passed. You CANNOT let the experience of getting passed make you, as a tennis player, timid about approaching the net again. This is like the muscles of the body — they have to be used and given a workout all the time. More use means more fluidity and memory, more coordination and overall well-being.

If you don’t use your body, you will lose it due to stagnation.

Gilles Simon can’t really become an all-court player at this point, but Daniil Medvedev sure can.

Most of all, coaches developing teenagers right now can choose to mold their players into all-court, all-skill, all-shot practitioners of tennis who won’t play draining 2:40 grass matches which will wear them down and erode both their longevity and their overall prospects.

This is not primarily about slow grass. This is about culture first.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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