Female tennis players are not just hitting the ball harder than ever before; the rate of change in women’s tennis is faster than in the men’s game. “If you project that into the future, you could say that women could catch up with the men,” said Dr Stuart Miller, the head of the International Tennis Federation’s science and technical department. In an interview with The Tennis Space, Miller also discusses the future of the sport, and when the ITF would be compelled to step in to ban racket and string technology.
On how women’s tennis is changing at a faster rate than the the men’s game
“We’ve seen a slightly bigger change in women’s tennis in the last 10 years than in men’s tennis. That could be for a variety of reasons. It could be because of the relative starting points of the women and the men. It could be due to one or two particularly talented individuals coming along in the women’s game, and making the game more like the men. If you project this into the future, you could say that women could catch up with the men, although I doubt that will happen. I think the most likely outcome is that their progress will start to follow parallel paths.”
On how the increase in power has been slowing down
“The data suggests that, over the last 10 years that we’ve been keeping an eye on this, speed has been increasing. I think most people who watch the game can see that’s the case. However, interestingly, that increase seems to be slowing down recently. If that trend were to continue, that could indicate that we have reached a peak, or alternatively it could just be a temporary lull. It may even be the start of a decline – I doubt that.”
On how receivers are getting better at returning fast serves
“There has been a meaningful difference in the increase of speed over the last 10 years. However, we think that receivers are getting better at using advance cues about where the opponent is going to serve; it might be some ritual that a player does when he’s going to serve in one direction, or where he tosses the ball. That will allow them to start to move in that direction before the ball is hit, which will give them additional time to get the ball back. I’ve become a believer that the battle between servers and receivers in tennis is self-regulating, although there may come a point where the speed of the game is such that this self-regulation becomes impossible.”
On how the ITF was right not to implement a “knee-jerk” rule change to curb the power of the server
“If you go back to the late 1990s, when the dominance of the serve came to a head, I think the servers had learnt to use the benefit of modern rackets, but the receivers hadn’t had enough experience of that to understand how they were going to respond to the increase speed. Now what we’re seeing is the receivers learning how to predict direction of serve, and the balance between server and receiver has been restored. But it’s taken quite a long time. The classic knee-jerk reaction isn’t necessarily the best approach. If the ITF had introduced a new rule to limit the power of the server – such as one serve only – in retrospect that might not have been necessary. You need to give these things times before you make such important decisions.”
On banning technology
“It’s quite rare that we would ban a racket if it doesn’t conform to the rules of tennis. We have to be vigilant, though. It’s at times such as when the balance between server and receiver is lost that you do have to step in and may develop rules that will restore that balance. A lot of what we do is ensuring that we have the information available to us so that when the times comes, we have the information available.”
On possible intervention on string technology
“The tennis community is aware of the properties of modern strings, and that these are very different to natural gut. At the moment, we’re monitoring it but we don’t think there’s any need for intervention. Going back to the late 1970s, there was a type of stringing called spaghetti stringing which was very successful at helping lesser players beat better players, and that was a true revolution in technology. It allowed previoulsy unheard-of amounts of spin to be generated by even the most basic of strokes, and the ITF quite rightly banned it.
“That remains the benchmark in spin generation and we still haven’t seen any racket, or string, or racket-string combination which approaches the spaghetti stringing in terms of spin generation. If anything came along that produces similar amount of spins, it would probably be banned, as it has already been shown that that is detrimental to the game. We have a string-testing programme which monitors their spin-generating properties so that we can act in the event that some intervention is necessary.”
On the future
“It’s difficult to make long-term predictions, but we’re not seeing anything at the moment which suggests that tennis is going to fundamentally change, or that the outcome of matches will be determined by equipment rather than the players. That’s really important to us – we want players to continue to be the primary determinants of who wins, not the equipment.”