Billie Jean King said it best when she summarized the evolution of tennis from a previous era to the game we know today: When I grew up my coach said, 'Don't miss!' Today, when I'm coaching I say, 'Let it rip! We'll work on getting the ball in the court later.' Her career path followed the transition of tennis from old-school control tactics to modern-day power tactics, so it's fitting she could sum it up concisely. There are huge implications for tennis in each of those simple expressions. Each saying embodies entirely different states of mind and approaches to the same game. Together they mark the change from defensive tennis to offensive tennis.
The basic philosophy of old-school tennis is: Don't make mistakes, make your opponent miss. That philosophy implies a defensive, risk-averse approach to the game. More precisely, it's a passive strategy; a strategy that led to marathon rallies and marathon matches. Hours and hours of opposing players waiting for the other to miss and, in some cases, hoping for enough daylight to finish a match. The strategy was to move the opponent around the court, use the trajectory of the ball and geometry of the court to create angles and openings, and pressure them to miss, or just plain wear them down. The likely winners were not the strongest players but surely some of the most fit, with good hands and feel, and a superior ability to control their shots.
Evert vs Navratilova. Virginia Slims Championship, 1975. TV graphics with emphasis on errors and control shots.
A defensive state of mind was due in large part to the capacity of equipment and general playing conditions. Tennis balls from the days of Tilden and Lacoste in the 20s and 30s were heavy, unlike the lightweight rubber and felt balls today. Racquets were extremely heavy too, and not very powerful. They were made mostly of wood and eventually various forms of steel and aluminum. The particular combination of heavy balls and heavy racquets, without much power, made it difficult to be offensive and hit through the court.
Ashe vs Borg. World Invitational Tennis Championship, 1977. Tracking stroke errors and passing shots.
Aggressive playing tactics weren't obvious, didn't make sense, and were difficult to execute effectively. Yet, as racquets and balls improved, and playing styles became more aggressive, especially from serve-and-volley players, the same defensive don't miss philosophy remained the teaching methodology of the day. Its roots were deep and it was a tough state of mind to shake. Even Billie Jean King, who was coached early in her career to hit carefully and not miss, consciously evolved her game to take on the challenges of aggressive strategies enabled by technological advances in equipment. She did and became one of the all-time great serve-and-volley players.
By the 1980s, racquet design changed. Balls had been modernized by then but racquets were slower to keep pace with the changing game and new lighter balls. Aluminum and carbon fiber racquets were commonplace by the 1990s and production techniques were advancing quickly. Over two decades, racquets became larger, much more lightweight, and far stiffer, meaning more powerful. It was inevitable the strategic approach to the game would change. Sheer power made it possible to hit through the court. New more powerful racquets made for an aggressive, offensive state of mind. The power game was born, enabling an entirely new perspective on the strategic approach to playing and training. Players needed to improve their physical performance as well. The game was getting much faster, the points more grueling. Players were getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Fitness and nutrition became serious considerations for professionals. Strength was as important as stamina and movement. Athletes began to cross-train in ways that increased strength and agility. Hitting a winner became a chief strategic objective. By the early 2000s, tennis had changed dramatically—and it was about to change dramatically again.
Navratilova vs Seles. Virginia Slims Championship, 1991. Aces and winners included in match stats.
Just as players were getting used to the new racquets, trying to figure out how to control the extra power, polyester strings appeared. Polyester made possible astounding levels of ball spin—just what players needed to reign in the power. It's the spin, a massive increase in RPMs, that make it possible for players to swing as hard as they can without fear of hitting out. Taken together, lighter balls, lighter more powerful racquets, better player conditioning, and strings that enhanced spin is the dynamic that sealed the fate of old-school tennis. Players didn't need to be patient and wait for their opponents to make errors, they could simply hit winners. Shot trajectories changed. Passing shots became more lethal, keeping net-rushers at bay. Forehands could be hit as hard as serves. With the advances in equipment technology, American tennis training changed from don't miss to an emphasis on big serves and big forehands as a winning strategy—or, let it rip.
Likewise, analysis of the game, from broadcast announcers to the scoreboard and the way stats were noted changed too. Before the advent of the power game, tennis was analyzed by a player's errors. Once tennis transformed to an offensive game of shot winners, the scoreboard had to change to relay how the game was played and what was happening on court. In the early days of televised tennis, the late 60s to early 70s, broadcasters experimented with ways to explain the game to the audience. Part of that effort was to provide statistics, rules, personal insights on players, and sometimes even tennis tips. Match statistics became an integral part of tennis broadcasts. In the early days, errors and double faults were the important stats. As conditions improved, net rushes forward to hit volleys became important too. In today's game, it's forehand and backhand winners, and aces.
Advances in technology have changed the way we live, work, travel, and play, from voice commands to turn on our lights, to software programs to manage business, to plugging our cars in, to hitting a ball across the net. Tennis is an ever-evolving game. Advances in materials allowed advances in equipment design that transformed court performance from defense tactics to offense strategies—and winning shots.