Blake Says Technology Has Changed Playing Style in Men’s Tennis

Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have dominated men’s tennis mostly because technological advances have limited different styles of play, said former American professional James Blake.

New rackets and strings have made it difficult for serve-and-volley players such as 14-time Grand Slam winner Pete Sampras to succeed on the tour today, Blake said at the Bloomberg Next Big Thing Summit in New York today. Federer, Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray -- who like most other players prefer to slug it out from the baselines -- have won 38 of 42 Grand Slam titles since 2004.

“There’s only certain ways to succeed now,” Blake said. “Those guys who are the best at it -- Roger, Rafa, Novak -- are capitalizing on that.”

Blake, 34, retired from professional tennis in 2013 with $8 million in career earnings. An annual fan favorite at the U.S. Open in New York, he advanced to three Grand Slam quarterfinals, never reaching the semis of the largest tournaments.

The 42 Grand Slams before Blake turned professional in 1999 were won by 16 different players. During his career, rackets became lighter and players switched to polyester or polymono strings that create more spin. That gave players more control, especially on service returns, leading to the near-extinction of the serve-and-volley game, Blake said.

Baseline Sluggers

Sampras’s tactic of moving to the net after hitting a big serve in anticipation of a poor return has been replaced by players trading powerful groundstrokes from the baselines.

“You just can’t do it because the guys have so much more time,” Blake said. “The ball is on the strings, it seems like forever to us, but a split second longer and it gives you so much more spin. It makes the game so much different.”

Sampras, 43, said this year that he’d play the serve-and-volley style if he were still on the ATP Tour, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. The former No. 1-ranked player called it a “lost art.” The tactic was most effective on the fast grass courts of Wimbledon, where Sampras won seven times.

“Everyone is staying back,” Sampras said, according to the newspaper. “You look at Wimbledon these days. It is one dimensional. It’s just the nature of technology, maybe the nature of how everyone is growing up with technology.”

Blake said technology has also allowed players to better scout their opponents.

“It used to be, when I was first on tour, you’d ask a buddy, ‘‘How does this guy play?’’ Blake said. ‘‘Now you can review video, you have DVDs of every single match and there are companies that will give you very detailed statistics, like this guy, on break point, serves 80 percent of the time to your backhand.’’

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