Though I say it myself, it was actually an incredible achievement for me to reach the top position in the INDESIT Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings. That is a fact, not some idle boast. The fact is that the current playing level in men’s tennis has never been as competitive as it is today. On any given day, a player in the top 100 can beat a player in the top 20. A defending champion can lose in the first round of a tournament anywhere. With so much variety and talent out there, it’s difficult for one player to dominate on all or different surfaces. That was not the case when Björn Borg dominated the game.
So many things have changed the sport in the two decades since then – including participation levels across the world, fitness, training and styles of play. Ten years ago, many tennis writers predicted the future of the men’s professional game was “serve-and-volley” tennis. In 1994, the top ten players by the end of the year included five serve-and-volleyers. Many said that the game was getting boring – points were too short. But this prediction could not have been more wrong. Several aggressive base-liners, such as Marat Safin of Russia, emerged, and ground-stroking experts such as Lleyton Hewitt of Australia and Guillermo Coria of Argentina. Today, the tennis experts ask: “Where are the serve-and-volleyers?”
I consider myself more of an all-court player. I like to serve-and-volley. I like to use the big serve to my advantage. I enjoy attacking the net, but I don’t mind playing from the base-line either. In 2003, I won ATP titles on all different surfaces: hard, grass, clay and indoors. That’s not done too easily any more.
My favourite players when growing up were natural serve-and-volleyers – guys like Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Pete Sampras. Their games were perfectly suited to faster courts: indoors on hard courts such as the United States Open, and outdoors at Wimbledon.
These days, with so many good players, everyone has his or her own special skill and mental approach to each surface. A player such as Max Mirnyi of Belarus can dominate indoors with his big serves and wide reach at the net. He proved that in the Davis Cup in April when Belarus upset the favoured Argentinians in Minsk to reach the semiﬁnals.
Game, mindset and match
Of course, playing style is not the only thing that has evolved. Fitness levels are higher than ever. Most of the top players have their own fitness experts or physical trainers who either travel with them or advise them from home. Players are hitting harder, moving faster and spending more time on the court for training. It means you are in better shape, but it also means you are more at risk of injury. My trainer, Pierre Paganini, has been vital to my success, as well as my physiotherapist, Pavel Kovac.
A lot of critics like to write about the new technology and the power in the racquets. None of that is of consequence. I love my Wilson ProStaff Tour 90, but I really believe I could play just as well and hit nearly as hard with older technology. In fact, many players use old racquets and just repaint them to look like newer ones. And the “wide-body” technology of a few years ago never truly became part of the professional circuit.
One thing that has become part of the professional tour is more players coming from different countries. A person such as Paradorn Srichaphan of Thailand has brought more young players to the sport. And with players such as Jarkko Nieminen of Finland and Sargis Sargsian of Armenia finishing in the top 40 last year, it proves that any country can produce a champion.
I know that, with the way the pro game has evolved over the years, it will be tougher to remain world number one in the INDESIT ATP race and tougher than ever to win a Grand Slam – that is, all four major tournaments in one year. But I can promise you one thing: I will try my best to prove it can be done in these incredibly competitive times.